Closed and Open Systems: Limitations of Conventional Physics

My first example is that of closed and open systems. Conventional physics deals only with closed systems, i.e., systems which are considered to be isolated from their environment. Thus, physical chemistry tells us about the reactions, their rates, and the chemical equilibria eventually established in a closed vessel where a number of reactants is brought together. Thermodynamics expressly declares that its laws apply only to closed systems. In particular, the second principle of thermodynamics states that, in a closed system, a certain quantity, called entropy, must increase to a maximum, and eventually the process comes to a stop at a state of equilibrium. The second principle can be formulated in different ways, one being that entropy is a measure of probability, and so a closed system tends to a state of most probable distribution. The most probable distribution, however, of a mixture, say, of red and blue glass beads, or of molecules having different velocities, is a state of complete disorder; having separated all red beads on one hand, and all blue ones on the other, or having, in a closed space, all fast molecules, that is, a high temperature on the right side, and all slow ones, a low temperature, at the left, is a highly improbable state of affairs. So the tendency towards maximum entropy or the most probable distribution is the tendency to maximum disorder. However, we find systems which by their very nature and definition are not closed systems. Every living organism is essentially an open system. It maintains itself in a continuous inflow and outflow, a building up and breaking down of components, never being, so long as it is alive, in a state of chemical and thermodynamic equilibrium but maintained in a so-called steady state which is distinct from the latter. This is the very essence of that fundamental phenomenon of life which is called metabolism, the chemical processes within living cells. What now? Obviously, the conventional formulations of physics are, in principle, inapplicable to the living organism qua open system and steady state, and we may well suspect that many characteristics of living systems which are paradoxical in view of the laws of physics are a consequence of this fact.

It is only in recent years that an expansion of physics, in order to include open systems, has taken place. This theory has shed light on many obscure phenomena in physics and biology, and has also led to important general conclusions of which I will mention only two.

The first is the principle of equifinality. In any closed system, the final state is unequivocally determined by the initial conditions: e.g., the motion in a planetary system where the positions of the planets at a time t are unequivocally determined by their positions at a time f0. Or in a chemical equilibrium, the final concentrations of the reactants naturally depend on the initial concentrations. If either the initial conditions or the process is altered, the final state will also be changed. This is not so in open systems. Here, the same final state may be reached from different initial conditions and in different ways. This is what is called equifinality, and it has a significant meaning for the phenomena of biological regulation. Those who are familiar with the history of biology will remember that it was just equifinality that led the German biologist Driesch to embrace vitalism, i.e., the doctrine that vital phenomena are inexplicable in terms of natural science. Driesch’s argument was based on experiments on embryos in early development. The same final result, a normal individual of the sea urchin, can develop from a complete ovum, from each half of a divided ovum, or from the fusion product of two whole ova. The same applies to embryos of many other species, including man, where identical twins are the product of the splitting of one ovum. Equifinality, according to Driesch, contradicts the laws of physics, and can be accomplished only by a soul-like vitalistic factor which governs the processes in foresight of the goal, the normal organism to be established. It can be shown, however, that open systems, insofar as they attain a steady state, must show equifinality, so the supposed violation of physical laws disappears (cf. pp. 132f.).

Another apparent contrast between inanimate and animate nature is what sometimes was called the violent contradiction between Lord Kelvin’s degradation and Darwin’s evolution, between the law of dissipation in physics and the law of evolution in biology. According to the second principle of thermodynamics, the general trend of events in physical nature is toward states of maximum disorder and levelling down of differences, with the so-called heat death of the universe as the final outlook, when all energy is degraded into evenly distributed heat of low temperature, and the world process comes to a stop. In contrast, the living world shows, in embryonic development and in evolution, a transition towards higher order, heterogeneity, and organization. But on the basis of the theory of open systems, the apparent contradiction between entropy and evolution disappears. In all irreversible processes, entropy must increase. Therefore, the change of entropy in closed systems is always positive; order is continually destroyed. In open systems, however, we have not only production of entropy due to irreversible processes, but also import of entropy which may well be negative. This is the case in the living organism which imports complex molecules high in free energy. Thus, living systems, maintaining themselves in a steady state, can avoid the increase of entropy, and may even develop towards states of increased order and organization.

From these examples, you may guess the bearing of the theory of open systems. Among other things, it shows that many supposed violations of physical laws in living nature do, not exist, or rather that they disappear with the generalization of physical theory. In a generalized version the concept of open systems can be applied to nonphysical levels. Examples are its use in ecology and the evolution towards a climax formation (Whittacker), in psychology where “neurological systems” were considered as “open dynamic systems” (Krech), in philosophy where the trend toward “trans-actional” as opposed to “self-actional” and “inter-actional” viewpoints closely corresponds to the open system model (Bentley).

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

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